Saturday, October 17, 2020

An appreciation: Linda Niemann

I have made mention of Linda Niemann’s books in previous posts, and will provide links in a moment. But in recommending her writing to a friend, it occurred to me that I should say some more general things. That is the purpose of this post. 

I might begin by observing that even before beginning her employment with Southern Pacific, she received a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley — not exactly your average brakeman or conductor — but she signed on with Southern Pacific as a beginning switchman.

Her first book, Boomer: Railroad Memoirs, is the volume I have described and recommended before. (Earlier comments about this and other books of railroad stories are at: https://modelingthesp.blogspot.com/2016/06/more-railroad-stories.html .) Here is the original  hardcover book jacket (left) and at right, one of the many trade paperback editions (it was even re-released once under the title On the Rails):


This book (University of California Press, 1990), is a gritty and honest presentation about learning to be a brakeman in the late days of the SP (shouldn’t I say brakeperson? — but Niemann refers to herself as a brakeman). She once mentioned in a interview that she never told anyone on the railroad about that Ph.D.

It also happens to be a pretty rough-edged story about her battle with alcohol, male harassment, inept management, and personal self-esteem while doing the railroad’s jobs. Some may not care for the personal parts, but the railroad content is direct and realistic, and for me, that makes it a great read. I definitely recommend it for those who would like to know more about what the work was like.

Boomer was followed by a book entitled Railroad Voices (Stanford University Press, 1998), co-authored with photographs by Milwaukee Road veteran conductor Lina Bertucci. This is an atmospheric book, with the photos lending a feeling that meshes nicely with Niemann’s stories and the stories of other railroaders that she had interviewed. Again, this is not the “romance of the rails,” but working people’s account of what that work was like.


Niemann eventually left her last railroad job, as an Amtrak conductor, and took up a faculty position in 1999 at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, teaching writing (she has said that publishing that second book was pivotal in her getting an academic job). Since then, she added her maiden name, and has signed herself as Linda Grant Niemann. 

During the first decade of the present century, she published a number of her stories in Trains and Railfan and Railroad magazines, and even in Railroad History. There is now also a third book, Railroad Noir, subtitled “The American West at the end of the 20th Century,” with photographs by Joel Jensen, published by Indiana University Press (2010). Once again, the photographs enhance very well the moods of her stories.

These are really great accounts of real-world railroading. Niemann’s writing is first-rate, and I believe that anyone interested in actual railroading will not only be intrigued with her many insights into railroaders’ work, but will also learn the things working people loved and hated about the work. I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Tony Thompson

2 comments:

  1. Good read, Tony. Thanks for the recommendation.

    George Corral

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  2. I read Niemann's first book quite awhile ago. Definitely first rate and would really make most folks think twice about hiring on any RR as train crew. Will definitely purchase her third book. Thanx for comments.

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